Frederick Winslow Taylor Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Frederick Winslow Taylor 1856-1915

American efficiency engineer and nonfiction writer.

A mechanical engineer by trade, Taylor is generally considered the father of scientific management. Dissatisfied with what he perceived as a lack of efficiency among American workers, Taylor began a series of time management studies that resulted in his best-known work, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), in which he set forth a system of efficient work that eventually was adopted by managers throughout the United States, most notably Henry Ford, who used Taylor's principles in his automobile factories. As the ideas outlined in the Principles spread from the workplace to the larger cultural sphere, Taylorism became one of the most influential social forces in twentieth-century American thought, leading ultimately to the modern phenomena of industrial engineering and mass production.

Biographical Information

Taylor was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family in 1856. His father, Franklin Taylor, was an attorney who later in life devoted his time to writing poetry, while his mother, Emily Annette Winslow, instilled in her son her own strong-willed practicality and independence. Groomed from an early age to study law at Harvard University, Taylor decided against entering his father's profession when his eyesight became troublesome, and instead began work in 1874 at the Enterprise Hydraulics Works, a pump manufacturing company in Philadelphia, where he worked as a pattern maker and machinist. In 1878 Taylor moved on to the Midvale Steel Company, working as a common laborer. In 1884 he gained the position of chief engineer and earned a mechanical engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology. Taylor distinguished himself in his early years at Midvale by performing experiments with cutting metals and patenting many inventions. Eventually he turned his attention to the stop-watch time studies and experiments with differential piece rates that would become the basis of his later principles. Taylor left Midvale in 1890 and became general manager at the Manufacturing Investment Company in Philadelphia. Additionally, he worked as an independent engineering consultant and continued patenting his inventions. From 1898 to 1901 Taylor worked as a consultant to the Bethlehem Steel Company in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There he furthered the development of what he called scientific management, performing numerous time-and-motion studies of workers as well as experiments on optimizing the effectiveness of machinery. Taylor was elected president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 1906. By then he was devoting most of his time to perfecting his system of management, and in 1910 Taylorism was formally introduced into the American workplace when Taylor gained government contracts to use his system in federal arsenals. Although Taylor had intended his system to ease tensions between employers and workers—because he had measured exactly how much work a person could do in a certain amount of time—he met with extreme opposition from organized labor, which viewed the system as dehumanizing. The issue came to a head in 1911 when workers at the Watertown Arsenal staged a strike. This event resulted in a governmental investigation of scientific management, which concluded that Taylorism was not in the best interest of workers. Business leaders and industrialists nonetheless widely adopted the system of scientific management, in particular Henry Ford, who enthusiastically implemented Taylorism in his automobile factories. The Society to Promote the Science of Management was founded in 1911 to further the cause of Taylorism throughout the industrialized world; after Taylor's death in 1915, the group's name was changed to the Taylor Society to honor what was considered his revolutionary approach to management.

Major Works

Taylor's numerous studies with workers and machinery resulted in his treatise The Principles of Scientific Management. Written as a guide for managers to reorganize the workplace, the Principles delineated a system of worker efficiency based on Taylor's time-and-motion studies and his advancement of the differential piece rate–a method of payment based on a standard rate of time and output. In Taylor's system, work was broken down into minute series of motions performed by each worker, who received detailed instructions and specifications on how to execute each task. Taylor's system accounted for every movement performed throughout the workday and left no room for unforeseen incidents. In this way, the Principles paved the way for the ideal of mass production in industrialized contemporary culture. Taylor originally submitted his Principles to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; when he received no response, he published the work himself. Wide demand led to the 1911 publication of the work in book form by Harper and Brothers. Taylor's Principles drew heavily from two of his earlier papers, both published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers: "A Piece-Rate System" (1895)–in which he reported his conclusions on the piece rate method of worker payment–and Shop Management (1903)–which attempted to redefine the managerial structure in factories, largely through the elimination of the position of foreman and its replacement with a planning department broken into highly specialized administrative units.

Critical Reception

Critics are quick to point out that although Taylor's influence was felt in virtually all industrialized nations, and his methods continue to affect contemporary ideas about work, his theories were rarely accepted and adopted in their entirety. Taylor's principles called for extreme specialization among workers, which many managers considered impractical and overly complex. Additionally, organized labor's campaign against Taylorism made some employers hesitant to endorse it; walkouts were common when Taylorism was introduced into factories. Some critics even contend that Taylor's ideas were not entirely original—that he appears to have borrowed heavily from an unpublished manuscript by his associate Morris L. Cooke, and that results of some of his experiments may have been more fiction than fact. Taylor's conservatism, his scorn of labor unions and what he saw as laziness among workers, and his seemingly quixotic search for perfection in the most minuscule details are frequently cited as evidence of his own feelings of inadequacy, and his principles are considered an attempt to impose order wherever he could in the turbulent early years of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, scientific management permeated twentieth-century society as it ushered in a period of mass production and industrialization previously unseen; Taylorism's wide-reaching effects were even satirized in the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times. Taylorism continues to influence contemporary work, as management theories rooted in Taylor's ideas persist.